MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota allows teachers holding temporary licenses to work in special education classrooms for too long, the U.S. Department of Education says — a crack in state licensing procedures decision-makers here say they’ll patch next session.

The lowest rung of the state’s tiered licensing system allows college graduates with a bachelor’s degree to work in any classroom for up to three years. But districts may seek further renewals from the state — even though federal law prohibits those educators from working in special education settings for a fourth year.

In response, state education officials say they’ll lean on lawmakers to make that limit explicitly clear next year.

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State education officials also say they’ll notify Tier 1 educators heading into their third or fourth year working in special education classrooms — 17 in all — that they must either seek higher credentials or risk becoming ineligible to keep their positions in 2024.

“We are confident the federal Office of Special Education Programs will accept our action plan and we look forward to working with our partners and state lawmakers to make the recommended changes in the 2024 session,” Minnesota Department of Education spokesperson Kevin Burns said in an emailed statement.

Department officials did not make themselves available for an interview. The U.S. Department of Education gave the state until June 30, 2024, to comply in a letter first reported by Sahan Journal.

Minnesota receives about $219 million in federal funding for special education per year. States typically run the risk of losing funding only after years of being out of compliance.

State Sen. Steve Cwodzinski, DFL-Eden Prairie and chair of the Senate Education Policy Committee, hopes to introduce legislation that enshrines in state law the three-year limit for Tier 1 teachers working in special education classrooms.

“Hopefully, we can get a single-subject bill,” he said, adding he’d rather address the issue early in the session than include the fix in larger, catchall legislation. “We don’t want to wait until the end of May.”

Cwodzinski wants to craft the legislation with input from special education teachers in his district.

“I do know a little about what special ed teachers face day to day,” he said. “The hours they put in is just draining.”

The state’s teachers union says the U.S. Department of Education letter shows the shortcomings of Minnesota’s educator licensing system.

“The Minnesota Department of Education’s plan will meet some of our union’s concerns, but not all, and we’re still waiting for a concrete plan to provide the necessary high-quality training to Tier 1 special education teachers,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a statement.

During the 2021-22 school year, nearly one-third of Tier 1 educators were licensed in special education, according to state figures.

“Raising the qualifications of teachers while simultaneously trying to solve an education staffing crisis and increasing racial diversity in the teaching workforce will not be easy — but that is not a reason give up on any educators or students, no matter where they live, what they look like, or how they learn,” Specht said.

Josh Crosson, executive director of the education advocacy group EdAllies, largely agrees but said lawmakers erred in closing off some pathways to higher credentials during the latest legislative session. Before this year, Tier 1 educators could attain a permanent license without graduating from a teacher prep program.

That’s now all but a requirement for aspiring teachers.

“We really need to make sure we’re building ladders,” Crosson said.

© 2023 Star Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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